In this day of dubious miracles, when lucky new arrivals on the rock scene are spotted, slated for super-stardom, and hyped to oblivion, all in a matter of a year or so; when the ability of the American Kulture-Complex to absorb revolutionary ideas and turn them into profit reaches weird osmotic states, the enlightened listener tends to become somewhat cynical when confronted with the term ‘underground music.’
We all know what the underground is; we can read about it in ads for Columbia Records: The Man Can’t Bust Our Music or Know Who Your Friends Are. Who are our friends? Who is the man? As far as my understanding goes, the man and what he symbolizes could be adequately represented by a billion dollar industry such as Columbia Records. And yet look who’s recording for them: Dylan, The Byrds, Johnny Winter, ‘underground’ rock stars one and all. Herein lies an interesting paradox, but then who really gives a damn. The music is groovy, and lining the pockets of record executives is an incidental that can be justified by putting on a record and listening to it. What it does do however is tend to cast doubt on terms such as ‘underground recording star’ or ‘spokesman for his generation,’ etc.
When hybrid mutations such as Big Brother and the Holding Co. “emerge” from the underground to start playing gigs all over the country and sign recording contracts for monumental sums, the terms which describe them then become inappropriate. Long hair becomes a financial asset, and the victims, or perhaps “lucky bastards,” depending on how you look at it, begin to lose touch with the qualities that distinguished them in the first place. In the case of Big Brother the results were tragic. The pressures were too great, the musical objective was lost sight of, and the unit collapsed. Ball and Chain for the 200th time was too much to face.
The results of such exposure being what they are, the term ‘underground music can only be applied to groups who have not recorded or to groups who have recorded and didn’t make it. In the latter category the reasons for failure range from being just plain bad to not enough or badly managed promotion, or to the rare occurance of the music being so far out and ahead of it’s time that it cannot be appreciated by a vast listening audience. I use the word rare because in almost all eases the artists are eventually discovered and brought to the front. Dr. John; the Night Tripper is an example. There are a few groups, however, that have yet to gain a large following. One of these groups is Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. In their case it’s a dirty shame.
I first saw Beefheart as an opening group at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco; playing with such groups as The Charlatans or the Sparrow, sounds indiginous only to that time and place: Sutter and Van Ness, the summer of ’66. Sometimes they even played with groups such as The Grateful Dead or The Quicksilver Messenger Service, who went on to create the overgeneralized term “San Francisco Sound” with the ridiculous sub-heading of “acid rock.” In that particular hierarchy Beefheart’s rating was not high. The big Four at that time were The Dead, The Airplane, Quicksilver, and Big Brother; group sounds with extended numbers (15 minutes to half an hour) with emphasis on guitar. Beefheart’s repertoire consisted, not without exception, of short blues numbers, Howling Wolf mostly, that featured the harp and vocals of Beefheart himself, whose real name is Don Van Vliet. They were good, but not exceptional, and I didn’t go out of my way to see them.
Then in September of ’66 Beefheart released an album: Safe as Milk. That was way back when Buddah had the Spoonful and weren’t known, particularly, as purveyors of the Bubblegum Syndrome. I didn’t buy the record immediately, but I did hear it at a friend’s and it blew my mind. More on the reasons for that phenomenon shortly. I read no reviews on the record and people I talked to who had heard it didn’t like it. “Cheap Psychedelia” was one comment I remember.
But to me it was a compelling record, with a compelling collection of styles and sounds, and another, somewhat disquieting element to it, something I had not heard before, and I stuck to my original impressions of its worth. The record grew to be one of my all-time favorites. But the listening public failed to get hip and the record didn’t sell. The trip from the front window to the two dollar bargain bin, where incidentally it remained, was short. Despite the fact that it was a masterpiece in packaging with fantastic graphic work by Tom Wilkes, presenting the not overly attractive band in its best light, through a fish eye lens, and, that inside there was a bumper sticker depicting a doll’s head in greenish hues next to the words “Save Safe as Milk,” it didn’t make it and Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band dropped with sickening speed from the public eye and ear.
In the three years from that time until the release of their second album, any information on the group I avidly consumed and slowly, ploying my way through countless issues of Sixteen and Rave, I began to form a sketchy outline of the group’s history. A high point in this search was reading an article entitled “How The Groups Got Their Names” and it ran along these lines: “…. teen correspondent Naomi Lungo asked Don Van Vliet of Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band how they got that wiggy name. ‘We just thought it up,’ was his answer!!!”
Not much to go on, but at least I knew they were still around. What I did find out though, was that they had been together for 15 years, that guitarist Alex St. Claire was renowned for delta blues playing even before joining the band and that they had all known each other since they were kids. They went to school together in a cowtown in the middle of the Mojave Desert; Lancaster, Calif. I really hit paydirt while reading an interview with Frank Zappa. I quote:
“Don Vliet (Captain Beefheart) was in the band (The Omens). Don and I used to get together after school and listen to records for three or four hours. We’d start off at my house, and then get something to eat and ride around in his old Oldsmobile looking for pussy – in Lancaster! Then we’d go to his house and raid his old man’s bread truck and eat pineapple buns and listen to records until five in the morning…”
Wow! Beefheart and Zappa – teen-age chums – cruising!!
Anyway, all this research took the form of a post-mortem to me, for I felt sure that Beefheart would never record again. And then, around December of a year ago he returned from the dead with an album entitled: Strictly Personal (Blue Thumb S-I). And it was “strictly personal!” I could imagine a furtive network of Beefheart fans standing in record stores across the nation quietly weeping. The gang was back again. Even Tom Wilkes on Graphic. This time the album appeared as a manila envelope – fourth class mail with the address:
Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band
5000/mgs. Tublar Falls Estates
The centerfold was an incredible photograph; a nightmare vision of a band of weird and fantastic aliens gathered from the comers of the galaxy to entertain you, and it fit the music perfectly. They had changed their label, added a guitarist and changed their style considerably – but it was still Beefheart and they were still a band – quite an accomplishment in this day of the Buffalo Springfield and Cream. And it confirmed my idea of them as individuals and musicians – that they loved music and loved to create music and that was important for them – and me.
Tracing Beefheart’s musical roots while interesting as it is with any group, is not as rewarding as experiencing their imagery, the landscapes and characterizations created by their music. Delta and Chicago blues are recognizable in familiar and not so familiar forms, but the total expression, as stated by the two albums seems to be solely a creation of the band itself; Don Van Vliet in particular. Classification is nearly impossible but I tend to think of the music being sort of 21st Century folk blues: something you might hear the early Martian settlers playing at the weekly stomp down at the Anti-Grav and Mescal Juice Ballroom. Other groups performing science-fiction music (such as The Byrds or Hendrix) tend to be somewhat subjective, narrating trips to the stars, etc., while Beefheart actually seems to be the product of such trips, a fantasy in a parallel universe come to life. While theramins, phasing and other electronic effects are in abundance, it is a unique quality of raunchiness that distinguishes them. Imagine Leadbelly, or Blind Lemon Jefferson or Mississippi John Hurt born 1,000 years later, and you have a pretty good idea of what Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band sound like. They don’t sing of rocket ships or trips to the stars, but the outlook, the points of reference, in these songs, leads me to think they are aware of their citizenship to the universe.
Their first album, Safe as Milk, starts with a solid blues number, Sure ‘Nuf ‘n’ Yes I Do, introducing fantastic delta guitar and Van Vliet’s fantastic voice, which slides and glides as if on greased ballbearings. Another intriguing aspect of the group is the rhythm guitar, which I think is double tracked by lead guitarist Alex St Claire. The timing and progressions throughout both albums are amongst the most imaginative and well delivered I have ever heard. The drumming, by John French, also shows the same stamp of quality, playing around the beat rather than just the beat itself. Together with bass guitarist Jerry Handly, it creates an imaginative and consistently entertaining rhythm section.
This is especially true of the high points on the first side of Safe As Milk, “Dropout Boogie” and “Electricity.” Both written by Beefheart, they are masterpieces of style, and, something Beefheart does better than anyone else, characterisation in both lyrics and music. In the first song Beefheart plays the part of authority – authority telling a kid in no uncertain terms, where his life is at:
“Ya wanna do what
Ya wanna do what
I toldja what
I toldja what
Go ta school
Go ta school
Kid get a job
Kid get a job
Don’t know what it’s all about
Don’t know what it’s all about.”
The voice is perfectly blended with the heavy fuzz guitar and sometimes sounds like the guitar is singing and Beefheart is playing his guitar. The instrumental break, however, has a lilting, childlike quality to it which makes the dilemma of the song – i.e., youth versus a hostile society – all the more hauntily realistic. The second song, “Electricity,” is definitely science fiction. Utilizing a theramin and a driving beat, Beefheart sings his praises to the Electrical God, using three or four completely different voices and characters to tell a story of “cowboys painted black” and the naked energy of electric light. He moans and chants as he tells of “thunderbolts caught easily that shout the truth peacefully.” If the Grateful Dead or the Jefferson Airplane are labeled “acid rock,” then Beefheart must be labeled “belladonna rock,” and his visions must spring from dark sabbaths in a fairy’s circle under a full moon.
On side two you are introduced to Captain Beefheart portraying the Wizard of Oz. The song is called “Yellow Brick Road” and he sings:
“Yellow brick road
took my load
come to my abode.”
The mood is light as he tells of springtime and flowers, until the break, when in strange harmony we are warned:
“Yellow brick black is black
Keep on walkin’ an’ don’t look back.”
The melancholy texture of this song leads me to think that perhaps Beefheart did look back.
This song and the one following it, “Abba Zabba,” are perfect examples of Beefheart’s completely unique musical imagery. He evokes moods and creates settings that I have never heard equaled or even approached in rock music. While you may not understand what Beefheart is trying to say, it is unmistakably clear that he does and that alone the poetic strength of his statements place him above more lucid artists.
In many of Van Vliet’s songs the theme is youth and the mysticism of childhood; often overlayed with a sense of loss. In this respect they are like memories, hazy, with softly rounded edges, old photographs of strangely symbolic figures. In “Abba Zabba” Beefheart is an old man remembering the fantasies of youth. The song speaks of open sky and the curious rituals of childhood. But these images are carried across most strongly not by the lyrics, but by the instruments.
“Yellow bird fly high in speckled sky
she shatters the moon that baby baboon
Gonna catch her soon that baby baboon…”
The instruments then break into a most beautiful musical description; a silent flock of birds flying under a full moon. Using the vehicle of simple rhymes like the kind you jump rope to, Beefheart conveys a longing for a more magical time, a time of simpler joys.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is “Grown So Ugly,” which I consider the best cut on the album. Here Beefheart is a man who awakes one morning to find a hideously ugly face staring back at him in the mirror. The anguish in his voice is frightening and the lyrics speak for themselves:
“…Go walkin’ down that street
knock upon my baby’s door
my baby come out
she asks me who I am
and I say honey
honey, don’t you know your man?
She say, my man been gone since 1942
and I tell you Mistuh Ugly
He don’t look like you!”
This is Van Vliet’s most convincing performance. He sounds scared to death. The rickey-tickey lead guitar and a heavy, tolling organ, backed by a skittish, schizophrenic beat, make this song truly a musical horror story.
The second album, Strictly Personal, is different in many ways from the first. The numbers are longer with less emphasis on vocals and more on a completely freaky instrumental exchange between guitars and drums, utilizing devices such as phasing and double tracking. The effect is energy, pure and simple. Great sweeping wings of sound bouncing back and forth between speakers; frothy waterfalls of notes descending like rain and Beefheart’s voice, a separate instrument of incredible range, which, when fed through a tape delay and similar studio techniques, loses all resemblances to that of a human voice and takes on an eerie quality of universal edicts sung in a methane atmosphere.
“You gotta trust us,” Beefheart says, “before you turn to dust.” The song is “Trust Us” and further on he explains in a throbbing warble:
“The path is truth and let the lyin’ lie
The path is youth and let the dyin’ die.”
The album is strongly electronic with two exceptions. “Gimmie Dat Harp Boy” features Van Vliet performing harmonica gymnastics and belongs more on the first album than this one. “Kandy Korn” is an amazing song in which there is no lead guitar, but rather two rhythm guitars playing full blast. Once again the energy is staggering.
Strictly Personal is less produced than Safe As Milk. Instead of setting up and playing their ten best songs, I get the feeling that the band is exploring the potential of a well-equipped studio.
This brings me back, via a rather meandering circle, to the original subject of this dissertation.
Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band will probably never go the route of most groups that “make it.” He will (probably) never play the Fillmore, most likely never go on an international tour or be subjected to bullshit publicity campaigns. In other words, he will never be a success in commercial terms. In this respect he may be labeled “authentic underground.” For his listeners this type of purity is good. It keeps the music interesting and valid. Maybe the band has other ideas, and for their sake I wish them success.
But more important than this in establishing their sub-surface authenticity, is the fact that their music, as a reflection of their life styles, is the personification of that which cannot be commercialized or popularized, because it cannot be easily assimilated, taken with a grain of salt – if you will – by a vast audience. Captain Beefheart substitutes entertainment for experience and cosmic awareness in the truest sense, for stylish appeal. That is surely the kiss of death in the world of “show biz.” Captain Beefheart and his band of intergalactic rovers dig what they are doing and if you can’t or don’t it really doesn’t matter that terribly much. They’re having fun, and in the final analysis that’s what art is. Isn’t it?